(Jerusalem) - Israeli attacks with guided missiles fired from aerial drones killed civilians during the recent Gaza fighting in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The attacks with one of the most precise weapons in Israel's arsenal killed civilians who were not taking part in hostilities and were far from any fighting.
The 39-page report, "Precisely Wrong: Gaza Civilians Killed by Israeli Drone-Launched Missiles," details six incidents resulting in 29 civilian deaths, among them eight children. Human Rights Watch found that Israeli forces failed to take all feasible precautions to verify that these targets were combatants, as required by the laws of war, or that they failed to distinguish between combatants and civilians. Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups have reported a total of 42 drone attacks that killed civilians, 87 in all, during the fighting in December 2008 and January 2009.
"Drone operators can clearly see their targets on the ground and also divert their missiles after launch," said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. "Given these capabilities, Israel needs to explain why these civilian deaths took place."
"Precisely Wrong" is based on field research in Gaza, where Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed victims and witnesses, examined attack sites, collected missile debris for testing, and reviewed medical records. The Israel Defense Forces turned down repeated Human Rights Watch requests for a meeting and did not respond to questions submitted in writing.
Military experts have extolled armed drones, or Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles, and their precision-guided missiles as weapons that can minimize civilian casualties. Their use is rapidly expanding - for example by the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"When used properly, drones and their precision missiles can help a military minimize civilian casualties," Garlasco said. "But drones are only as good at sparing civilians as the people who command and operate them."
In the six cases documented in the report, Human Rights Watch found no evidence that Palestinian fighters were present in the immediate area of the attack at the time. None of the civilians who were killed were moving quickly or fleeing the area, so the drone operators would have had time to determine whether they were observing civilians or combatants, and to hold fire if they were unable to tell the difference.
In three of the cases, drones fired missiles at children playing on rooftops in residential neighborhoods, far from any ground fighting at the time. Human Rights Watch found no evidence to suggest that the children were acting as spotters, relaying Israeli troop locations, or trying to launch a rocket from the roof.
On December 27, 2008, the first day of the Israeli offensive called "Operation Cast Lead," a drone-launched missile hit a group of university students as they waited for a bus on a crowded residential street in central Gaza City, killing 12 civilians. The Israeli military has failed to explain why it targeted the group on a crowded downtown street with no known military activity in the area at the time.
On December 29, the Israeli military struck a truck that it said was transporting Grad rockets, killing nine civilians. The military released video footage of the attack to support its case, but the video raises serious doubts that the target constituted a military objective - doubts that should have guided the drone operator to hold fire. The alleged rockets, the military later admitted, proved to be oxygen canisters.
The technological capabilities of drones and drone-launched missiles make these violations even more egregious, Human Rights Watch said. Drones carry an array of advanced sensors, often combining radars, electro-optical cameras, infrared cameras, and lasers. These sensors can provide a clear image in real time of individuals on the ground during day and night, with the ability to distinguish between children and adults.
One Israeli drone operator who flew missions in Gaza during the recent fighting told an Israeli military journal that he was able to detect clothing colors, a large radio, and a weapon.
The missile launched from a drone carries its own cameras that allow the operator to observe the target from the moment of firing to impact. If doubts arise about a target, the drone operator can redirect the weapon elsewhere.
The drones deployed by the Israeli military - the Israeli-produced Hermes and Heron drones - have video-recording devices so that everything viewed by the operator is recorded. Every Israeli drone missile strike during Operation Cast Lead would therefore be registered on video.
The Israeli government is obligated under international law to investigate serious violations of the laws of war. Israeli military or civilian personnel found responsible for committing or ordering unlawful drone attacks should be disciplined or prosecuted as appropriate, Human Rights Watch said. Individuals who have committed serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent - that is, intentionally or recklessly - are responsible for war crimes.
Israel has failed to conduct credible investigations into its actions during Operation Cast Lead. On April 22, the military released the results of an internal investigation, which concluded that its forces "operated in accordance with international law" throughout the fighting and that "a very small number" of "unavoidable" incidents occurred due to "intelligence or operational errors."
A fact-finding team from the United Nations Human Rights Council headed by the respected international jurist Richard Goldstone is currently investigating alleged violations of the laws of war by both Israel and Hamas. Israel has said it will not cooperate with the investigation because the Human Rights Council is biased against Israel. Hamas has said it will cooperate.
Human Rights Watch called on Israel and Hamas to cooperate fully with the Goldstone investigation. Regarding drone-launched missiles, Israel should provide the recorded video footage and other documentation of its attacks in which civilians were wounded or killed.
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